I've got a litmus test for whether a film or television show focusing on aid-workers, journalists or policy wonks is going to be a worthy representation about working on the frontlines of the developing world.
It's the phrase, "Children are dying!" If you hear that one, then you know you're in for some Hollywood tripe. *
Its most recent incantation has been in the promos for ABC's Off the Map, by the makers of Grey's Anatomy. And while the show may well be a successful character-driven drama, the backdrop is a very Disney depiction of what aid-work is actually like.
Strangely, "Children are dying," is usually an omen of heavy-handed nobility: get out the shovel. But "Off the Map" is so anodyne that one character is even ignorant of what "gringo" means.
Set "somewhere in South America," the pilot episode could very well have taken place in the "Swiss Family Robinson" attraction at Disney World. There's cliff-diving! Did you see that Indiana Jones style rope-bridge in the promo? And there's zip-lining!
Zip-lining is a sign of real money -- a country marketing the golden goose of "eco-tourism" to wealthy foreign tourists who want a little Third World adventure, just hold the actual Third World part of it, por favor. A town with eco-tourism is going to have an infinitely better hospital, with -- gasp! -- doctors who aren't flown-in foreigners. But "Off the Map" hasn't got room for an actual "South American" who went to school -- besides the token hot nurse.
The "jungle clinic" exists in a weird hybrid of what's meant to be total isolation, and yet it's crawling with foreign tourists - like Tijuana, like Kuta Beach, Bali; like - well, the Swiss Family Robinson attraction at Disney World.
(Mysteriously, this "jungle clinic" has an ultrasound machine, and yet not a single painkiller for the tourist with a stingray in his foot?)
But these, arguably, are lesser crimes. What Hollywood consistently misses entirely is what motivates a professional person to work overseas.
In the interest of total disclosure, mine is not an unbiased argument. I'm currently shopping my own television series proposal about these very topics. I also lived 17 years overseas, in Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia/East Timor, Egypt, Hong Kong and India; and have done the rounds of several low-budget insurgencies, plus the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia - so I know of what I speak.
In Off the Map, three of these tortured souls have left behind a death (two have lost a loved one; one accidentally killed a patient.)
Oh, what tortured pasts! (And this is just a slight variation on the canceled 2009 series "The Philanthropist," whose lead character James Bonded around the globe to save it and ease the torment of losing a son, who oh-so-heartstringingly showed up in hallucinations and dream sequences. There was also a token hot local chick in every episode.)
Most aid-workers are not actually engaged in self-imposed penance with gut-wrenching nobility. The world of aid, policy and journalism is real enough without the tortured pasts -- though "Off the Map" is so lightweight it's those shackles to the past that may be the only thing keeping the characters from floating away.
(If you've really worked in aid, then the phrase "Children are dying!" suggests an aid-worker so enraptured by his own self-sacrifice that he would be considered naïve to the point of incompetence. If the issue is literally life-and-death, then there's no time for the histrionics.)
Put simply: most aid-workers (and journalists!) want to get off. They want to get off on doing good. They want to get off on testing themselves against hardship and working on the frontlines of history. They want to get off on the ex-patriate lifestyle.
And sometimes they just want to get off.
This is not a bad thing.
Where else do you go from rookie journalist to sit-downs with the Prime Minister within the first year of your career? And the topic is genocide? Where else can you teach people how to cast a ballot, in what will be their country's first ever election? Where else can the virologist on the frontlines of HIV prevention sit down to coffee and gossip with a trannie junkie but the backstreets of Jakarta? It beats the White House, it beats stuffing envelopes and it beats the Ivy League.
The push-button shallowness of Off the Map means it's going to miss the epic tragi-comedy of what working overseas in aid, journalism or policy is really like. It's wading hip-deep into farce - and finding out, for example, that the national human rights chief is the same guy who just flattened the refugee camp. And now you've got to work with him.
Yes, your job may suck. But your sense of humor just improved. You'll never meet more twistedly, mordantly, funnier people than aid-workers and hacks.
What's more, with its exotic frontlines-of-history-vibe, working in a Juba, a Baghdad or a Kabul makes it easy to get laid. The pond is small, and - more than anywhere else you've ever lived - you are one hot fish. Ask me sometime what "yellow fever" is, and I don't mean the mosquito-borne disease.
Booze and chemical recreation, if you go that route, are cheap and easy to come by. Laws of the "real" world simply don't apply. If you get caught, the local police are likely to be corrupt enough to be bribed into submission.
And while most are already cynical about the press, no one should labor under the misapprehension that all aid-workers are good. There are self-serving careerists and incompetent wanna-be's in the aid-biz, the same as any other industry. Plus, just because you call it "aid," it doesn't mean it's beneficial. Just look at Haiti. (Click here. Click here. Click here. Click here.)
Amid all that, is some very real dedication, by people who spend their lives using journalism, diplomacy, medicine, teaching, science and social entrepreneurship to improve lives.
Make no mistake: there is poverty in this world. There is tragedy. The tens of thousands of professionals working to stop it are a global sub-culture all their own. It's a universe that deserves to be examined for its many successes and all its myriad, marvelous flaws.
But it's never Disney.
*Angelina Jolie's "Beyond Borders" has it, uttered repeatedly by a close-to-cardiac-arrest Clive Owen. "Hotel Rwanda" does not. The "Killing Fields" does not, nor does "The Year of Living Dangerously." The wonderful recent film "Balibo" does not. The fabulous series of episodes in which "ER" went to a country similar to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to my knowledge, did not. The Broadway production "Time Stands Still" does not.
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